Monday, July 2, 2018

Why Cynan Jones's "The Edge of the Shoal" Won the 2017 BBC National Short Story Award


The 2017 BBC National Short Story Award (the 12th year the £15,000 has been awarded to a single short story) went to Welsh writer Cynan Jones for a story published in The New Yorker entitled “The Edge of the Shoal.”
Jones has said that the story began as a 30,000-word short novel but was shaved down to 11,500 words because, as he said, “it didn’t work.”  When he sent it to The New Yorker, they liked it but said it was still too long and asked him to cut it in half. Jones says he only had 4 days to pare the story down to 6,000 words, working frenetically to strip out anything that was “decorative.” The halving of the story was fortunate for Jones, since the BBC contest is limited to stories under 8,000 words.  I am not sure of the sequence of events, but it appears that after the story was shortlisted for the BBC Prize, Jones decided the original 30,000-words might work after all. Granta published  it as a novella entitled Cove, which then won the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize.
Lucy Popescu of the Financial Times put Cove in the category of survival narratives, such as Robinson Crusoe and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  She says the novella’s “terse lyricism” makes much of it read like a prose poem—a “haunting meditation on trauma and human fragility.”
Peter Adkins argues in the Glasgow Review of Books that Jones combines the mythic and the modern, the sacred and the mundane, the poetic and the technical.  Adkins says it is at times hard to tell the difference between the imagined and the real in the novel, for it  reaches a point where reality blurs with the fantastic, situating itself on the “threshold between the active, observing mind and the brute thereness of the sea.” An admirer of the recent academic trend toward so-called eco-criticism, Adkins calls Cove “profoundly ecological.”
Eileen Battersby of Irish Times is not so sure. She calls Jones’s style forced  and “quasi-poetic” and argues that the main character’s struggle to survive never becomes more than a “stagey, choreographed mood piece rife with symbolism.”
The few comments that have been made about the story come mainly from the judges: of the BBC Contest: Jon McGregor called “The Edge of the Shoal” “a genuinely thrilling piece of writing with a completeness of vision and execution that made it an inevitable winner.” Di Speirs said the story is “a perfect illustration of the transporting, utterly absorbing power of a great short story.” And Eimear McBride even went so far as to rave that it is “as perfect a short story as I’ve ever read.”
Claims that the winning story is a perfect short story, a great short story, an exemplary short story  have often been made by judges of the BBC Award over the past twelve years.  I have commented on such claims for the previous eleven winners of the contest on this blog and on the TSS Publishing Website because, although I have no right to second-guess the choice of the judges—they are, after all, the only ones, I presume, who read all the entries to the contest-- when they claim that the winning story is perfect, doing what the short story does best, they imply that they actually know what the characteristics of a “perfect” short story are. I am not always sure their choices bear this out.
The short story has often been characterized as a form in which everything not absolutely essential to its central effect or unifying theme must be mercilessly cut. William Trevor, one of the greatest short-story writers, has said that the short story’s  “strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness.”  The result of leaving things out is often a cryptic sense of mystery that many short story writers insist is an essential characteristic of the short story. Flannery O’Connor, another undisputed master of the form, once said, "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.”
However, I wonder if the mysteries suggested by “The Edge of the Shoal” are intentional thematic mysteries or the accidental result of the cuts Jones had to make to get the story published in The New Yorker. For example, there are frequent passing references to the central character’s father, whose ashes he has in the boat, presumably because he plans to scatter them at sea.  Moreover, there are several scant references to a “her” or “she,” who  the story suggests is pregnant and who the central character left at home while he has made this trip to catch some fish for lunch. These cryptic references to the father and the pregnant woman are more clearly identified in the short novel. Although it might be suggested that these contextual allusions reflect the story’s theme of being caught between birth and death, there is nothing else in the story to support such a justification for the allusions.
I have written about the relationship between the short story and the novella on this blog previously, arguing that the novella is more closely related to the short story than to the novel.  Jones seems to agree that the short story and the novella are closely related, for in an interview in Los Angeles Review, he says he likes the novella form because the “level of engagement” has to be strong and it relies more on implication than explanation, “adding that  short novel is a “moment, not a journey.”  Jones is quoted elsewhere as saying that he likes the short story form for the very same reasons that he likes the short novel form: “Everything counts.” You have to create emotions and judgements, rather than describe them, Jones says, adding, “A short story is a moment, not a journey.”
I have suggested on this blog and other places that it is not content that makes a short story a short story, but rather technique.  In what follows I would like to suggest some of the short story techniques Jones makes use of in “The Edge of the Shoal”—techniques that, if they do not make it a “perfect” short story, at least make it a representative example of the form.
The most predominant short story technique in “The Edge of the Shoal” is its frequent use of metaphoric language, particularly the simile, of which there are fourteen in the story, e.g. “The jaw splits and the gills splay, like an opening flower.” Another typical short story characteristics derives from Jones’s frequent use of  the “as if” trope, of which there are sixteen in the story,  e.g. “Flecks of blood and scales loosen, as if turning to rainbows in his hands. Most of these metaphoric comparisons take place after the man is struck by lightning—primarily to suggest a metamorphosis in the man’s perception of reality.
Another short story technique is the frequent reference to the archetypal nature of the man’s experience. For example, in the first paragraph, the man thinks the sound of the fish thumping in the boat is like a drum beat--“Something rapid and primal, ceremonial.” The primal is also suggested when the man picks up the container of his father’s ashes, and it feels warm from the sun “as if” the ashes were still warm from cremation.  The man is suddenly afraid when he unscrews the lid that he will release some jinni, or ghost. He thinks of reinvesting the ashes with memories, to remind them of moments and thus to “make them the physical thing of his father.
In a simile that is as close to a statement of the story’s theme as Jones will risk, he man sees a fish jump out of the water, like a silver nail.  “A thing deliberately, for a brief astounding moment, broken from its element.” The simile echoes what happens with the lightning strike—an “astounding moment” when the man is thrown out of his everyday element into an alternate reality for which he can no longer easily find a familiar context with which he can identify himself. He sometimes “slips off the world” for a time.  His consciousness is a “snapped cord,” and he asks who he is.
The man confuses external reality with his perception, having forgotten that other life “puppets” around him. He is not sure if a butterfly he sees actually exists in the world or whether it is his own eye. This echoes the familiar Taoist parable of Zhuangzi, who dreamt he was a butterfly, but on awakening, did not know whether he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly, dreaming he was a man. 
The man experiences several moments when he cannot tell the difference between what is happening in the external world and what his imagination creates.  For example, he feels the warm sun on his neck and thinks it is someone’s breath.  He either sees, or thinks he sees, people on the beach and feels he is in a dream, asking “Where am I?” He hears a child crying and thinks, “This is not real,” but it is the cry of a dolphin calf.
The man reaches a point when he understands that to gain control of his life and return to everyday reality he must establish a rhythm of familiar reality, since that is what has been disrupted by the lightning strike.
The story’s focus on the  man’s efforts to gain some control, to overcome his pain and disabilities to feed himself and get back to shore, have caused some reviewers identify the story with the survival efforts of Robinson Crusoe. However, whereas Crusoe is a classic example of how the novel deals with physical details in the world, “The Edge of the Shoal” is more like Hemingway’s use of physical detail in such stories as “Big, Two-Hearted River” and his novella The Old Man and the Sea, for the physical details in Jones’s story are transformed, as they are in Hemingway’s stories, to significant, thematic details.  
I have suggested in other places that he novel form usually gains the reader's assent to its reality by the creation of enough realistic detail to give readers the illusion that they know the experience in the same way they know external reality.  However, in the short story, realistic details are often transformed into metaphoric meaning by the thematic demands of the story, which organize the details by repetition and parallelism into meaningful patterns. For example, the hard details of the external world in Robinson Crusoe exist as an external resistance to be overcome.  However, in Hemingway's "Big, Two-Hearted River," the extensive details exist primarily to provide an objectification of Nick's psychic distress and his efforts to control it. Thus, at the end of the story, Nick's refusal to go into the swamp is a purely metaphoric refusal, having nothing to do with the real qualities of the swamp, only its aesthetic qualities.
It is the short story that transforms the physical world into meaning, not usually the novel. As Raymond Carver once observed, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Caroline Taylor's collection "Enough"



When I began this blog almost ten years ago (My, my! Has it really been that long?), I announced that my intention was to discuss the characteristics of the short story as a literary genre, even though many of my colleagues have always insisted that the form has no unique literary characteristics, for “fiction is fiction is fiction” whether it is a short story or a novel, or so I have been told countless times.
Nevertheless, I stubbornly persisted. Over the years, whenever I have discussed individual short stories or collections of short stories, my aim has not been to write “reviews”-- although I have written many newspaper and periodical reviews during my career—but to use  individual stories and collections as a basis for discussing general issues about the short story form.
However, occasionally, I get requests from publicists to write a “review” of a new collection of stories.  I never turn these requests down, for, as I said in my first blog almost ten years ago, I am, if nothing else, a “cheerleader” for the short story and am always happy to encourage both writers and scholar/critics who have an interest in the form.
I recently got a request from the publicist for JKS Communications in Nashville, to “review” a new collection by a writer named Caroline Taylor, who I had never heard of before. The collection is entitled Enough, which is also the title of the opening story, and subtitled Thirty Stories of Fielding Life’s Little Curve Balls.  Ms. Taylor is the author of three mystery novels and numerous short stories in various online and small press venues—many of which are reprinted here.
Ms. Taylor did not purposely write thirty stories on the theme of “fielding life’s curve balls”; in a public relations interview, she said that without intending to, she just seems to have written a number of stories about “people confronting the unexpected and the unwelcome,” adding that she selected those stories that “best reflect the myriad ways people handle life’s life surprises.”
This might very well be a description of a great number of short stories I have read during my career as a teacher and critic. The short form is one that lends itself to “unexpected” and often “unwelcome” “surprises.” The issue that concerns me as a reader and critic of short stories is how mysterious are those surprises and how complex are the means by which human beings react to and deal with them.
I read all thirty stories in Enough, and then, as is usual for me, I went back and read them all again.  However, I don’t think that most readers will read them more than once, for truth to tell, they do not require reading more than once—as stories by great short story writers, such as Alice Munro and William Trevor—most always do.
But then, all short stories do not have to be stylistically complex or metaphorically mysterious, do they?  Although these are not the kind of stories I usually taught in the classroom or have written extended analyses of, I did enjoy reading them. They seem to me to be “entertaining” stories--brief enough to read rather quickly and straightforward enough to  grasp without a great deal of soul-searching thought.  This is the perfect collection of stories to take to the beach or on vacation.  You can read one of these stories while filling up your gas tank and not be distracted by it while driving on down the Interstate.  These are stories that may make you smile wryly and nod your head knowingly.  They are the kind of stories that filled Saturday Evening Post and Colliers many years ago when short stories were the entertainments that television took over for later on and made couch potatoes out of us all.
These stories are not brilliant, but they are intelligent.  They are not poetically precise, but they are well written.  They are not psychologically complex, but they are psychologically perceptive. I liked reading them. I just would not feel the need to “study” them. But then only guys like me always feel the need to “study” stories.
I will summarize and comment on only one story to give you an idea of what they are like.  “Maude’s Makeover” begins with the first-person voice of the titular character saying, “Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character.”  She hurriedly amends her statement by saying she does not mean a cartoon character like a hapless rabbit flattened by a falling piano, but rather a woman from a graphic romance novel—with “shoulder-length golden hair, huge tits, a narrow waist, and long, curvy legs.”  But alas, she says, her name is not Paris or Angelina, but Maude—with all the homeliness that the name suggests.
So Maude decides to go to the beauty parlor and get a make-over to try to be like the kind of cartoon character she aspires to, telling the credulous receptionist at the salon that she is one of the finalists in the “Miss Eighteen Wheeler” contest at the National Long-Haulers Association convention.
The National Long Haulers get wind of this and apologize for leaving her name off the list of contestants, and, as you might expect, Maude wins the contest and goes down to the courthouse to get her name changed.
The story is a lot more fun to read than my summary can give it credit for, for Miss Taylor adopts the voice of Maude quite convincingly.  And not all the stories are this flippant and facile.  But they are all entertaining and clever. Once you accept them as this type of story, you can just give yourself over to them while lying on the beach before putting on your sun screen and taking a nap with a smile on your face.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint Almost Got Me Fired



I was sorry to hear of the death of Philip Roth this week.  I have been reading his work ever since his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus,  won the National Book Award in 1959 when I was a senior in high school. I have particularly enjoyed his creation of Nathan Zuckerman throughout the years. However, my favorite Roth book is Portnoy’s Complaint, a book that, indirectly, almost got me fired from my university teaching job. It was Portnoy’s Complaint that inspired me to create a course in the English Department years ago entitled Love and Sex in Literature.  In my course proposal, I argued that novels like Portnoy’s Complaint were works of art that had to be taken seriously, but that because readers were so unaccustomed to reading graphic descriptions of sexuality outside of pornography they lacked any historical/critical context for taking sex seriously in literature.  I wanted to create a course that would “teach” students how to read about sex intelligently.
After teaching the course for a year, one of my colleagues challenged the validity of the course and my authority to teach it—resulting in a charge of unprofessional conduct that lead to an “investigation” by administrators and fellow faculty.  However, by this time, I had made a respected name for myself as an expert in the study of sexual fantasy in literature and had delivered scholarly papers at a number of professional societies and had published several academic research articles on the subject.  My colleagues found the course to have academic validity and found me “qualified” to teach it. It was an interesting period in my career, and I thank Philip Roth for indirectly encouraging me to engage in it. Consequently, today, although it means a momentary departure from my usual discussions of the short story, I pay tribute to Philip Roth by making some comments about one of his most famous novels—Portnoy’s Complaint.  
Portnoy’s Complaint depicts one long quest in which Portnoy uses sexuality as a weapon to rebel against repression, even as he is victimized by sexuality itself.  Caught by what Freud calls "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life," Portnoy cannot unite the two currents of feeling--the affectionate with the sensuous.  Only when the sexual partner is degraded can he freely feel his sensual feelings--which explains his preoccupation with, and his ultimate rejection of gentile women.  When he meets Monkey, who seems the complete embodiment of his adolescent sexual fantasies, he ridicules and humiliates her until he drives her away, for he can neither accept her as a real woman nor be satisfied with her as a sexual fantasy.
Throughout the novel, Portnoy recounts his obsessive masturbation, his constant preoccupation with a pornographic fantasy object he calls Thereal McCoy, and his unsuccessful romantic and sexual experiences with various gentile women. However, he also spends equally as much of his confessional monologue to his complaints against the repressions placed on him by his parents and his Jewish culture in general--which primarily amounts to the constant message that "life is boundaries and restrictions if it's anything, hundreds of thousands of little rules laid down by none other than None Other." Finally, when he goes to Israel on a sort of pilgrimage to atone for his transgressions and to come to terms with his cultural roots,  he meets and tries to have sex with a Jewish woman, only to find he is impotent with her.  The novel ends with Portnoy's drawn-out howl at what he calls the disproportion of the guilt he feels, followed by a "punch line"--Dr. Spielvogel's only words in the novel--"Now vee may perhaps to begin Yes?"
In a sense, the entire novel is Portnoy's character, for he not only is its central and entirely dominating  figure, he is its only narrator as well.  Because of his Jewish childhood, particularly his desire to please his mother, Portnoy says at one point that his occupation is being "good." He wants to be a good little boy, but he cannot control the demands of his own physical body as a child, and thus suffers disproportionate guilt for his masturbation and for his adolescent sexual fantasies about every female he meets.
 Portnoy is the living embodiment of what Freud defines as "civilization and its discontents"--a walking personification of the Oedipus complex.  Moreover, he is representative of what many refer to as the "self-hating" Jew, which is what the Jewish woman Naomi calls him in the novel's final section.  He presents himself throughout as both the teller of and the butt of an extended Jewish joke.  He is intelligent enough to know himself well, to know who and what he is, but he is not strong enough to free himself from his dilemma of being torn between his desire to be "good" and his obsessive sexual desires.
Portnoy's mother and father, Sophie and Jack, are less real people than they are stereotypes of the Jewish mother and father in America, with Sophie complaining to her friends that she is "too good," and warning Portnoy about eating gentile junk food, and Jack complaining about his constant constipation, both literally and metaphorically. Portnoy sees them both as the greatest packagers of guilt in society.  Having read Freud, Portnoy sees the Jewish woman, Naomi, whom he unsuccessfully tries to have sex with, as a mother-substitute, and cries out to Doctor Spielvogel, "This then is the culmination of the Oedipal drama, Doctor?  More farce, my friend!  Too much to swallow, I'm afraid Oedipus Rex is a famous tragedy, schmuck, not another joke!" Although Portnoy wishes he could have nourished himself on his father's vulgarity instead of always searching for his mother's approval, even that vulgarity has become a source of shame--"every place I turn something else to be ashamed of."         
The Monkey also is less a real character than she is the embodiment of Portnoy's adolescent fantasy of the sexual woman, the "star of all those pornographic films" he produces in his own head. Uneducated hillbilly turned high-fashion model, she is an aggressively sexual creature instead of the reluctant puritan gentile women he has known before.  Although she has her own needs, Portnoy can focus on the needs of no one but himself. Kay Campbell (Pumpkin), Portnoy's girlfriend at Antioch College, represents his yearning for Protestant middle American values, while Sarah Abbott Maulsby (Pilgrim) embodies New England respectability.  However, as Portnoy himself recognizes, he does not want these women so much as he wants what they represent.
The most basic thematic interest in the novel centers on the Freudian tension between human desires for controlled civilized behavior and the discontent that results from having to give up  impulsive behavior to establish civilization. Portnoy is the extreme embodiment of modern man self-consciously caught in this war between necessary control and desired freedom. However, such a theme sounds much too academic for the means by which Roth's novel embodies it.  For the novel, serious as its theme is, is one of the great comic masterpieces of American literature. 
It is hard to take seriously the Portnoy voice agonizing about locking himself in the bathroom to engage in masturbation while his mother stands outside asking him not to flush so she can examine his stool. Portnoy describes his penis as his "battering ram to freedom," and cries out, "LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID. Liberate this nice Jewish boy's libido, will you please?" However, although Portnoy longs for the uninhibited sexual attitude of his boyhood classmate, Smolka, at the same time, he asks, "How would I like my underwear all gray and jumbled up in my drawer, as Smolka's always is?"
What Portnoy cannot tolerate is the fact that he cannot have both his toll house cookies and milk which his mother supplies, as well as the sexual experiences that Smolka enjoys. Since sexuality is the central taboo impulse which civilization seeks to control to assure its own stability, the nature of sexuality itself is a primary theme of the novel.  "What a mysterious business it is," says Portnoy, "with sex the human imagination runs to Z, and then beyond."  Because sexuality itself is so inextricably bound up with fantasy, the very style and tone of the book combines the realism of Portnoy's experience with the surrealism of his sexual fantasies.  
The fact that Portnoy is Jewish is less important in its own right than it is to embody the extreme insistence on "self-control, sobriety, sanctions" which society says is the "key to human life."  The non-Jewish society which Portnoy often yearns for is no less banal and crippled in its restrictions and recriminations than the values which his Jewish heritage attempts to instill. Thus, the primary themes of the book are both psychological and social, but the medium for both is the hilarious self-satirizing voice of Portnoy, which is alternately sophomoric in its humor and sharply critical of social absurdity.
Portnoy's Complaint is somewhat of a cultural milestone in fiction of the 1960's, for, although its obsessive focus on sexuality and its constant use of taboo words seemed to align it with many of the conventions associated with pornography, it was a serious novel with a serious theme.  Consequently, its publication forced many cultural critics to reevaluate their previous assumptions about sexually-explicit literature.  It was hailed by many reviewers, made the best-seller list, and became a topic of cocktail-party conversation in an era in which "pop porno" became acceptable. Not since the works of Henry Miller had autobiographical fiction and explicit sexuality been so forthright and engaging.
Although much of the criticism of the book has focused on its Jewishness, many have recognized it as typically American as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951)--as a comic masterpiece of the cultural and personal conflicts of growing up in American society. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Best American Short Stories: 2017--Five on the Light Side--Short Story Month



I am reading stories in this year’s Best American Short Stories randomly.  They are fun, but rather lightweight.  It’s not often that BASS is a book you can take to the beach and read without worrying about being distracted.  But these stories don’t take much concentration. Here are some comments on the first five. Maybe the next five will be more challenging.

T. C. Boyle, “Are We Not Men?”
T. C. Boyle is the consummate professional writer, always on the lookout for subjects that might “make a story,” and that’s what he is good at—“making stories.”  The subject of “Are We Not Men?” as he makes clear in his “contributors’ notes” to the 2017 Best American Short Stories, is gene-editing technology.  The title is from H. G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, which is about a doctor who experiments with combining animal species, often with humans, resulting in such creatures as hyena-swine, dog-man, leopard-man, etc. In this story, Boyle gives us “crowparrots” and “micropigs” and explores lightly the human use of CRISPR technology which allows the main character and his wife to choose from a menu how their chromosomes can be matched up to create a daughter.  The story reminds us that Boyle is primarily a satirist, not a short story writer--an entertainer, not a powerful artist.

Danielle Evans, “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”
 The title is an acronym for the colors that make up a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Evans says the first thread of the story came from hearing a sermon on Noah’s Ark, which perhaps lead to the first sentence of the story; “Two by two the animals boarded, and then all of the rest of them in the world died, but no one ever tells the story that way.” The rainbow, of course, is a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the earth again with water—which the narrator says seems like a “hell of a caveat.” The story centers on the wedding of Dori, a pastor’s daughter, who has her bridesmaids wear the seven colors of the rainbow. Evans says the real loneliness of the story lies underneath the opening sentences—understanding that “every triumphant story of the things we survive is also the story of the losses haunting it.” However, the reader has to wade through lots and lots of plot stuff to get to this payoff—involving Rena and JT detained in a small hotel in Africa because of the threat of a biological warfare agent, Rena’s sister Elizabeth being shot by her husband because her suspected infidelity, JT disappearing when he was supposed to be marrying Dori, Dori and Rena searching for JT and ending up at a water park, etc. etc.  It is a cluttered story that tries my patience.
Sonya Larson, “Gabe Dove”

Sonya Larson’s “Contributors’ Notes” about this story seem to me more intriguing than the story itself.  She recalls a period a few years earlier when she found herself suddenly single; trying to date again, she discovered that many men were most interested in her race, which is half Asian.  It occurred to her that the dating world may be one of the last remaining realms in which people openly expressed racial preference. Larson says that although we tend to think that attraction is a mysterious, deeply personal force, we often find that forces of history, stereotyping, even public policy may shape what we think is simply personal.  She wondered if what we think is our gut feelings may have a racial bias.  So she set out to write a story that “houses” these ideas—resonating like a bell tower around a bell.  She concludes that although “Gabe Dove” may seem like a simple dating story, what is actually at stake is “nothing less than who we make available to ourselves to love.”  Sounds like complex stuff, but I am  not sure the story can carry this much weight.

Fionel Mazel, “Let’s Go to the Videotape”
And here’s another story whose originating idea seems more complex than the story itself.  Mazel says the story arose from her thinking about the influence of social media on children because rather than worrying about its detrimental effects, she thought social media was very helpful, finding herself in a community whose shared interest was parenting, but then finding herself uncomfortable with feeling this way. She asked the following questions: Is camaraderie necessarily fake simply because you don’t know the people you are exchanging ideas with?  Does publicizing personal details mean the end of real friendship?  She said the story arose from her desire to find a framework for thinking through how all this stuff might play out in the life of a man “hobbled by grief.” The result—a story about a man who enters a video in America’s Funniest Home Videos of his son being thrown over the handlebars while learning to ride a bike--seems less about a complex human issue than it is an opportunity for Maazel to create some funny scenes and dialogue.

Jess Walter, “Famous Actor”
I posted an essay on Jess Walter’s short story collection We Live in Water´ when it first came out. My conclusion then was as follows:
Jess Walter is a professional writer, a guy who makes much of his living writing—first as a journalist and now as a fiction writer, who has cranked out a political mystery novel, a 9/11 suspense novel, a social satire, and a movie romance epic, and this collection of popular, entertaining, but certainly not literary, short stories.  If Jess Walter signifies the “modern American moment,” then the moment is about fiction that pleasantly passes the time but does not significantly stimulate the grey matter.  Just the kind of disposable stories your Kindle was made for. 
My opinion of his story “Famous Actor” in the 2017 Best American Short Stories  is pretty much the same.  Walter is clever, with lines like: “First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.”  He invented a “famous actor” because he wanted to write a story about a romantic encounter with a famous actor, adding that he can tell if a story is going to work if he is having fun writing it. Indeed Walter does seem to have fun inventing story lines for the movies and tv shows the famous actor has made.  The result is entertaining, but that’s all. Is that enough?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Novelistic Stories in 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month


Michelle Huneven’s “Too Good to Be True,”
Several stories in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories raise for me the issue of the difference between the pleasure we get from reading novels vs. the pleasure we get from reading short stories—an issue which may be related to the question of plot vs. form or reality vs. artifice.
The author of four novels, Michelle Huneven calls herself a “novelist by nature” a designation she does not define, although she says she had to “prune” some “virulent digressions” from “Too Good to Be True” resulting from her “novelistic nature.” Laura Furman, the editor of the O. Henry collections, who chooses all the stories included each year, says Huneven’s story exhibits the writer’s skill to permit the “reader to ride on the narrative current without noticing form or technique”-- a novelistic characteristic that is often more focused on reflecting the so-called “real world,” rather than creating a formal world of thematic significance.
David Bradley, the author of two novels, chose “Too Good to Be True” as his favorite story in this year’s O. Henry Prize Stories,  admitting that he has always loved the “long, not the short” of a story and that as a teacher of creative writing, he struggled to conceal this prejudice from this students. He says that while he teaches Poe’s insistence that no word should be written that does not contribute to the story’s one pre-established design, he has always found undue length less exceptionable than undue brevity.  Bradley says he has never thought a tale “more elegant just because I could read it between or during bathroom breaks.” He says that what he wants while sitting by a roaring fire with a glass of bourbon and a book was an “old-fashioned story, a la Chaucer, Rabelais, or Balzac, with a beginning, middle, and ending.” Huneven’s story was his favorite because  it kept him sitting longer than he wanted and haunted  him even after his glass was empty and the fire was out. That all sounds very “novelistic by nature” to me.
So I asked myself, one again as I have for lo these many years: What is “novelistic” and what is “short storyistic” by nature—willing to accept all the while that a novel can have short story characteristics and a short story can have novelistic characteristics. If I ask myself what “Too Good to Be True” is about, I would say it is about a young woman who is a drug addict and her family’s pain at their inability to help her escape that habit. The story is novelistic rather than short storyistic because it does not “mean” anything; it is rather "about" "as if" real characters in the real world. 
Here are some other stories that I would characteristic as “novelistic” rather than “short storyistic” in the 2017 O. Henry Prize Stories:

Genevieve Plunkett, “Something for a Young Woman”
There is something of a mystery in this story of a young woman who works for a shop owner who gives her a necklace. She marries someone else, wants to play the viola in a symphony, has a baby, separates from her husband, is drawn back to the shop owner, but makes no contact with him, wears the necklace to his funeral, and cannot make up her mind about returning to her husband.  This could go on and on, much as a novel can go on and on—never coming to a thematically meaningful ending.
Mary LaChapelle, “Floating Garden”
A young boy and his mother escape from an unnamed country in conflict.  He becomes separated from his mother, but continuing on his own, boards a ship and ends up in Oakland. He is taken in by a woman who raises him and goes to a Southern California college on a scholarship. This is a straightforward journey story, told in first person, and could have been a novel had the details of his escape and  his new life in America been more elaborated detailed.  But it has no thematic meaning other than the “as if” real events in the boy’s escape.
Keith Eisner, “Blue Dot”
Although this story begins in fairy tale fashion with “Once upon a time,” it is actually a realistic story about young people hanging out and taking drugs. They talk a lot, but not about anything of thematic significance.
Lesley Nneka Arimah, “Glory”
This story is from Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, a debut collection that received good reviews and stirred up some publicity. It is a story about a young Nigerian woman whose parents named her “Glorybetogod.” But she seems to have come into the world resenting it. When she meets a young man, who seems to have been born lucky, her parents think Glory’s fortunes have changed--that her life will “coalesce into an intricate puzzle.” However, when the young man offers her a ring, she knows she must make a decision. She could go on and on having encounters like this, chapter after chapter.
Manuel Munoz, “The Reason is Because”
Munoz says in the comments at the end of the O. Henry Awards that the character in his story named Nela, who gets pregnant and drops out of school, reminds him of girls he grew up with. He says he does not see characters like Nela in American fiction often and that the story was a way for him to deal with what has been a long standing problem in his fiction—“how to name the violence that shapes the people I write about—the people I love—without veering into stereotype.”




Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Kevin Barry, "A Cruelty" and Heather Monley, "Paddle to Canada"--O. Henry Prize Stories--Short Story Month



Kevin Barry, “A Cruelty”
A few years ago, I did a series of blogs on the six shortlisted collections for the 2012 Frank O’Connor. Kevin Barry’s collection Dark Lies the Island, was my favorite of the six shortlisted books, but I quickly admitted that it was my favorite for personal reasons, not necessarily for critical reasons.
I enjoyed Barry’s Dark Lies the Island because:
*I have lived in Ireland and love the people.
*My wife, whom I love best of all people, is Irish.
*I love Jameson, Bushmills, and Guinness.
I also liked Barry’s story “A Cruelty.” I found the story simple and  irresistible. You know from the very first sentence that the story is about the power of obsession: “He climbs the twenty-three steps of the metal traverse bridge at 9:25 a.m., and not an instant before.”  After a page and a half of obsessive observation, we get the background of the main character Donie, who was first allowed to make the short train journey from Boyle to Sligo on his sixteenth birthday.  He has now made the run every working day for twenty years, and it is his belief that if he is not on the 9:33 train, the 9:33 will not run.  The ritual is his way of controlling his limited life; he experiences a 100 percent day when everything falls into place just as it should.
But of course, as is the nature of a short story, this is an account of a day when things do not go on in the smooth ritualistic way that Donie thinks they should, for as he eats his usual sandwiches on his usual bench, a man appears who manifests an inexplicable cruelty—calling him a “poor dumb cunt” and saying that it looks as though  the best part of Donie “dribbled down the father’s leg.”  The man reminds Donie of a picture of a hyena he once saw in a coloring book, and the image haunts him even after he escapes.  The day is spoiled, of course, and it is not clear if Donie will ever feel at home in the world again.  It is his first encounter with motiveless malignancy—there is no accounting for it. All he can do is go home and retreat into the arms of his mother.
I remember once when I was in a department store with my daughter, a sweet trusting child of  two or three. A woman stood close by looking at clothes with her son, also about the age of two or three.  When my daughter reached out to greet him, he suddenly pushed her away with a frown. I have never forgotten  her face as she looked up at me for an explanation. I had none.

Heather Monley, “Paddle to Canada”
This is another simple story about a family who, while on holiday, get caught in a thunderstorm while paddle boating on a lake.  Heather Monley says the story originated from a memory of when she was four or five and her family were similarly caught in a storm. However, the event is not the story, but rather it serves as the center of a story about telling stories, for the fictional family members never forget the event and often laugh about it. When the father goes back to the boat rental to get his driver’s license, the owner challenges his failure to make a deposit. The father laughs at the idea that the rental required a deposit: “What do they think we’re going to do?  Paddle to Canada?”
But later the story becomes a point of contention after the parents get a divorce.  The mother uses it as an example of the father’s carelessness and selfish stinginess.  The father uses it as an example of the mother’s ineptitude, hysterically shrieking and being no help on the paddleboat.  The children’s memories of the event become “muddled with what they had been told , and what they wanted to believe.”
In her comments on the story, Heather Monley says it is about the nature of stories, a subject she finds herself returning to often.  “I like stories that question themselves,” she says, stories that “point out the tenuous connection between narrative and truth.”  For the children the event becomes an occasion for trying to understand-- “as if thinking hard enough or in the right combination would lead somewhere, would form a pathway to a world that had been lost in the confusion of their lives.” This is a thematically tight story. The peril in the boat, the fear, and then the joy of surviving, and telling the story over and over creates a kind of bond between the family--that is, until the divorce, and the two children get different sides of the parents blaming each other. A broken family is a complex experience for children. Heather Monley has found a story way of dealing with that complexity.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Shruti Swamy's, “Night Garden”--O. Henry Prize Stories 2017--Short Story Month


Shruti Swamy, “Night Garden”

Shruti Swamy  says that her story “Night Garden-- about a woman who watches her dog stare down a cobra and drive it away--told itself to her very simply and she wrote it down, noting that every once in a while “a miracle happens, and a story is started and finished in the space of an evening.” She says this has only truly happened to herr once, adding “ it is the sweetest feeling I know.” 
The discovery of a story to tell is partially that which grabs the artist and makes him or her need to tell it; it is something that  involves him with the nature of its latent significance that is compelling. Sherwood Anderson once said, “having, from a conversation overheard or in some other way, got the tone of a tale, I was like a woman who has just become impregnated.  Something was growing inside me.  At night when I lay in my bed I could feel the heels of the tale kicking against the walls of my body."  This involvement of the teller with the tale, this need to give it life and form, says Anderson, grows out of the materials of the tale and the teller's relation to them.  "It was the tale trying to take form that kicked about inside the tale-teller at night when he wanted to sleep." 
Katherine Anne Porter once said her stories spring from a tiny seed and that she always writes a story in one sitting, "one single burst of energy."  Sometimes the story is so unified around this central impulse or tone it seems that the writer must have written in one go.  Critic T.W. Higginson said of De Maupassant's stories that they seem to have been done in one sitting, "so complete is the grasp, the single grasp, upon the mind."  And William Carlos Williams has said that the short story consists of one "single flight of the imagination, complete:  up and down."
Hemingway once said that he wrote "The Killers" and "Ten Indians" in one day, and Franz Kafka supposedly wrote the "Judgment" in one night. This is not to say that the story that the author ultimately published and that we read is what was written in one sitting—but rather that the story was completed in its wholeness in one burst of dominating impulse, one single flight of the imagination or involvement. This suggests something about the short story that does not hold true for the novel—that the form springs from a writer involvement in the story that corresponds in some ways to the lyrical impulse of the poet. 
Elizabeth Bowen has said that the "first necessity for the short story, at the set out, is necessariness.  The story, that is to say, must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to have made the writer write... The story should have the valid central emotion and inner spontaneity of the lyric; it should magnetize the imagination and give pleasure--of however disturbing, painful or complex a kind.” Bowen also argued that the story should be as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture.
Shruti Swamy’s “Night Garden” is indeed a picture, but it is also a story about a woman’s creation of that picture—her fascination by  a form manifested in the world outside her window that stands for something mysterious; the story charts her efforts to understand the significance of that spatial form, which draws her in and makes her part of the form she observes.
Although she first is drawn to the shape the dog makes, his tail taunt and his head level with his spine, “so his body arrowed into a straight line, nearly gleaming with a quality of attention,” the snake also catches her attention, for there seems something “too perfect about her movements, which were curving and graceful. Half in love with both, I thought, and it chilled me.”  As night falls, the two animals look like “unearthly, gods who had taken the form of animals for cosmic battle.”
The story ends with the dog winning the frozen battle with the cobra and the woman carrying her exhausted pet into the house.
O. Henry Prize Story editor Laura Furman suggests that there is more at stake for the narrator than her dog’s life, for in watching the silent confrontation she’s “bearing witness as well to the failure of her marriage and the question of how she will face the rest of her life.”  However, I see nothing in the story to suggest this personal backstory, except perhaps the narrator’s general statement that “everyone’s marriage is unknowable from the outside.”
There is nothing personal about this story; it is the creation of a form in space, a picture that means something, which only the picture itself can embody.